My name is Abby and I’m here today representing the Graduate Student Organizing Committee. I’m a second year PhD student in epidemiology, and I spend my spare time canvassing and organizing with the Pitt Grad Union because I believe that all graduate students work hard and deserve to have a voice at work.
Today I want to use a common thing I hear when canvassing STEM grads as a starting point for a broader discussion about the moral responsibility of scientists. This goes something as follows: “well, I believe in what you all are doing, but I don’t want to pick a side, I just want to focus on my work.”
Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book called Cat’s Cradle that was published in 1963. In it, a brilliant but aloof scientist develops a technology called ice-nine, a seed crystal that freezes any water it comes into contact with. This fictional scientist, who developed the atom bomb and played cat’s cradle with a length of string as it was dropped on Hiroshima, developed ice-nine to help American soldiers avoid dealing with mud. His children sell the bits of ice-nine in their possession after his death and end up freezing all the water on earth, precipitating a global catastrophe and the extinction of all human life. That’s one example of divorcing your work from its context. Frankenstein is another. Frankenstein, as Vonnegut reminds us, is the name of the scientist.
What are these stories telling us? What does it mean just to focus on our work and try not to think too much about these broader, tougher subjects?
One of the most common refrains around the march for science is the defense of this thing called science from our right-wing government. I think a deeper analysis is that defending the concept of evidence, or the concept of using the scientific method to arrive at evidence, is not enough.
Science is a tool with a socially and historically dependent purpose. For every discovery of penicillin or a polio vaccine, there are dozens of examples when science has been used as a tool of domination, discrimination, exploitation, torture, or genocide; for designing private gain and its complement, public suffering. I know for a fact there are people in this audience who go to work every day and develop more advanced and high-tech weapons systems, more devastating mechanical and chemical bombs for our government to use or to sell to other governments. We know for a fact that American psychologists — scientists — collaborated with the second Bush administration to design legal and ethical justifications for that administration’s torture program. The United States — the same United States that tear gassed its own people in Ferguson in 2014, in Baltimore in 2015, at Standing Rock in 2016, the same United States that has been at war for more than half my life — launched air strikes on Damascus last night. Another massive waste of human life, another costly imperialist farce, another big pay day for defense contractors, weapons manufacturers, and, yes, scientists. What we defend is not science itself but responsible and ethical deployment of science. Science is too powerful, and too scary in the hands of human beings, to be divorced from active ethical judgment.
We’ve talked about how the endeavor of science is a social one. I will also argue that knowledge production is context-specific. The university is a labor arrangement; the conditions of knowledge production are our working conditions. As graduate students, adjuncts, and faculty, WE WORK. This work arrangement structures and determines the types of questions we ask, the way we collect, analyze, and interpret our data, and the conclusions we draw. So I am disappointed when we, scientists in this labor arrangement who are so well-trained to think critically and analytically, bury our heads in the sand when confronted with difficult questions and difficult judgments, and then elevate our moral cowardice to a virtue called “objectivity.” I see the project of making our working arrangements more transparent, equitable, inclusive, and safe as part and parcel of the project of making “science” — both the career and the social endeavor — all of those things as well, and for that reason I organize with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee.
When I march for science, I don’t march for your right to develop weapons or surveillance systems or more expensive formulations of insulin to be sold to the poor at a criminal markup, or more sophisticated algorithms for financial market speculation so that the few can cash in and the many can suffer. I march for a positive and radical vision of science, science for the people, science for liberation.